Painted Brain Comes to Pico Community

FEB18pb1When TNN heard about Painted Brain, a unique arts group opening up in the Pico/Fairfax community, we immediately rushed artist Phil America over to get an interview with David Leon, who co-founded the organization with Eli Israelian.

TNN:    Can you describe Painted Brain's mission?

Painted Brain/David Leon:  Sure. To quote it, "The Painted Brain is an organization that creates lasting community-based solutions to mental health challenges and the impact on social injustice." And to do that, we use the arts, advocacy, and the enterprise. We've been running for about 10 years. The main focus is really a way to try to help people dealing with mental illness, kind of find each other and find social connection through the arts.

Why art as opposed to another vehicle?

Well actually it just grew out of an art group that I ran at Didi Hirsch [a mental health service provider] about 12 years ago. I was working with a lot of younger adults who were experiencing first brain psychosis, early onset bipolar disorder, depression, things like that. And what I saw was that therapy, psychiatry, really wasn't meeting their social needs, and there wasn't really an easy way to send them out to find social connections with other people outside of the agency. Especially for people that had mental health issues that actually made them stand out as kind of different, like responding to voices, or very slow in response times, things like that. 

    So I tried a talk therapy group, and that didn't work very well, it just made everyone more anxious. Then we tried art activities, and that actually got people in the room, got people to socialize with each other. It worked really well, and it just illustrated to me, that art is a great way to get people to socialize, to hang out with each other, to just let out enough vulnerability to actually connect. And for people who have mental health challenges, there's all this stigma, there's fear of connecting with other people, there's a lot of avoidance of social outlets. From what I've seen mental health issues play out in our world through social impairment, and social challenges. 

What are your biggest challenges?

I think that the mental health system has failed in  creating the ideal community mental health intervention. A lot of the institutionalization that happened in the 80s and 70s was intended to create community mental health spaces for people with mental illness to socialize with each other.

  Didi Hirsch's called itself a community health center and did a good job of providing traditional mental health services, psychiatry, and case management therapy while making inroads into creating a social community. But I've found  that people dealing with mental health issues actually have a lot more to offer each other yet they don't have an avenue or a venue to do that in. So the arts and our community center, and our intentions over the years have been to try to fix that missing piece. 

    We currently have the space over on Pico and Fairfax. [5980 Pico Blvd, LA 90035] It's kind of storefront space with a community room and a tech room.

Who is leading the groups?

Mostly peer leaders, people with mental health issues. All adults, but all ages, 18 to in their 60s. I think that unintentionally, the message a lot of people get when they seek out psychiatry or therapy, especially when they have a more severe mental illness, like schizophrenia or something like that, is like, lower your expectations, get used to living a life of minimal experience with minimal existence. And it's really unfortunate because a lot of times people can actually overcome these illnesses.  Not in the sense of the symptoms going away, but they can live a full life.

So over the course of the 10 years, how have things changed from year one to now?

Well after the first year of running this art group, we had a ton of really cool material, like poetry, artwork, drawings, sketches. So we decided to try to create a print magazine, which we called The Painted Brain.  The first issue came out in 2006. So for many years, we basically just ran as this kind of weird alternative activity space. We produced one magazine a year, had a party to celebrate it, and for about seven years, we didn't really do much more than that, we just ran it as this yearly party event for launching the magazine. Eventually, that grew into actually running art shows and having an event, like a real event for the release. So it would be an art show, a sale, sometimes a music venue. 

Then about four years ago, we moved away from the print magazine to an online newspaper. Instead of spending five, six thousand dollars on printing a magazine, we spent that on staffing, and on being able to actually pay peer leaders, things like that.

 We also keyed into this idea that art groups are actually a really good selling point for us, so we started selling it as a service to other mental health agencies, psychiatric hospitals, inpatient treatment centers.  Right now we have about 16 to 18 running a week, at all different places. The farthest are in San Bernardino and Long Beach.  But the majority are central to Los Angeles city. Some places are group homes, some places are psychiatric hospitals, outpatient health centers. 

In the last six months, we've gotten involved with post-incarceration populations. So we work with an outpatient treatment center for that population and a housing unit for that population. It's no secret Twin Towers [downtown jail center]  is full of people with mental illness that should be in psychiatric facilities, not in jail. So when they get out, they're usually in way worse shape than when they went in, and the treatment is really needed at that point.

How can people within the community help?

We're always looking for creative folks to do group leadership. A lot of the people that lead groups, we call them peers, just because they're not clinicians, like social workers, mental health professionals. There are always great opportunities for anyone in the local neighborhood who wants to share their skills or their strengths. Could be a workshop, could be an ongoing group.  It's not just visual art, it's anything artistic.   We have yoga classes. We would love to have dance classes. We have a lot of poetry writing, visual arts. But we're always looking for sculptors, clothing designers, things like that, musicians. We have a jam session that happens every Friday, which we actually don't do at our space, we do it at the VA campus because we have a space there where we can get really loud and keep guitars and drums.

To contact Painted Brain go to their website: To find out about events click on Calendar.




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Established in August of 2008 by writerartist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.

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